1980: The Shining
There’s not going to be much debate as to the #1 horror film for 1980—our apologies to The Changeling in particular, but going up against The Shining in this project is an unenviable task that few films could possibly win. Outside of the top spot discussion, however, things become much more interesting.
Chief among the contenders is the aforementioned Changeling, a film beloved by horror geeks but still underseen by general film fans. A truly haunting blend of classical ghost story and psychological horror, The Changeling stars the ever-gruff George C. Scott as a man attempting to heal from personal tragedy by renting a huge, Victorian mansion … which of course, turns out to be haunted. In this case, however, the restless spirits of the house aren’t necessarily malevolent in nature—but the actions that led to their demise certainly were. Equal parts mystery and genuinely blood-curdling suspense, The Changeling features some of the most effective “haunted house” sequences ever put on film. Who would have thought, for instance, that you could get such a powerful reaction out of the repeated appearance of a child’s toy ball? Even in its most subtle of moments, The Changeling feels profound.
1980 is also the year that the slasher genre truly kicks into overdrive, going from a wide field of “Halloween imitators,” including this year’s Prom Night and Terror Train (both with Jamie Lee Curtis), to a genre that would dominate the horror box office for most of the next decade. The film that signals the opening of the floodgates: Friday the 13th.
Sean Cunningham’s first Friday film is, let’s face it, a pretty average slasher by later genre standards. As should really be common knowledge at this point, the killer in the original installment isn’t the better known Jason Voorhees, but his deranged mother, Pamela, seeking revenge on a new class of horny Camp Crystal Lake counselors, a year after her son supposedly drowned due to their lax supervision. Its characters are on the stock side, and the film largely made a splash upon release for its imaginative death scenes (the arrow through Kevin Bacon’s neck in particular), but it’s the sequels that truly established what we think of as the classic Friday formula. Notably, it’s those very sequels, and the increasingly popular character of Jason, that quickly begin transitioning the slasher genre from stories with sympathetic protagonists to collections of annoying bodies the audience wants to see maimed and torn asunder. By the time we’ve reached parts 3-6 of a series like Friday the 13th, it’s become clear—when the seemingly indestructible killer is the sole returning face in each installment, he becomes the de facto protagonist in his own sick way.
Elsewhere, 1980 gives us an additional handful of minor classics in one form or another, from the beautifully shot, ghostly sailors invading Antonio Bay in Carpenter’s The Fog to Joe Spinell blowing a guy’s head apart with a shotgun in William Lustig’s ultra-gritty Maniac. Italian grindhouse horror is likewise is having a moment, including batshit zombie flicks like Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City or Lucio Fulci’s supernatural shocker City of the Living Dead, which would lead to what is arguably the director’s most famous work, next year’s The Beyond. And of course, there’s the infamous animal violence of Cannibal Holocaust to tip-toe around. It’s a fine year all around, even if every one of these films to some degree exists in the shadow cast by The Shining.
1980 Honorable Mentions:
The Changeling, Altered States, Friday the 13th, The Ninth Configuration, The Fog, Maniac, Inferno, Cannibal Holocaust, Prom Night, City of the Living Dead, Terror Train
The Film: The Shining
Reading about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, you’re eventually bound to come across the “fun fact” of how Stephen King famously dislikes this particular adaptation of his novel source material. It begs an obvious question: Why would King be opposed to what is generally considered one of the greatest horror films of all time? It’s only after reading King’s novel that one can truly start to grasp his grievances: Kubrick’s The Shining is a masterpiece of composition and design, but it’s not truly much of a faithful adaptation, nor did Kubrick intend for it to be. The famously—shall we say “willful,” given the circumstances—director simply breezed through King’s work for inspiration, then reframed King’s more recognizably human characters in his own, uniquely malignant light. In doing so, he created something King no longer recognized as his own, but the result is a masterpiece all the same. It’s just that it’s Kubrick’s masterpiece in this case, rather than King’s. It makes sense that Kubrick reportedly screened Eraserhead for the cast and crew, while trying to get them into the right headspace.
Indeed, it’s pretty clear from the moment we first lay eyes on Jack Torrance (during the classic interview scene) that there’s something wrong inside this guy. He wears the predatory false smile (thanks to Jack Nicholson’s irreplaceable grin) of a man who nods and shakes your hand while seething with rage just under the surface. He seems to resent everyone and everything around him, finding the job of “caretaker” far beneath his unrecognized brilliance. He looks at his wife and child and sees them as both distractions from his “work” and impediments to his freedom. It’s only when he opens up a bit to Lloyd the ghostly barman that we begin to understand the combination of shame and resentment that drives him. He knows that he’s behaved monstrously in the past, but is unable to find enough empathy for his family to keep it from happening again.
As an aural-visual experience, The Shining is likely the single most distinctive horror film ever made. Its droning soundtrack, innovative Steadicam shots and singular images, like that of the two little Grady girls standing in the hallway, beckoning to Danny, are instantly recognizable even to people who have never explored horror cinema. Its most famous sequences, such as Danny scrawling “redrum” on the wall or Jack chopping down the bathroom door to get to Wendy, are so deeply embedded in pop culture at this point that references to them will be easily understood until the end of recorded history. At the same time, though, The Shining also still rewards scholarly analysis of its elements that are less known to the casual cinemagoer, such as Kubrick’s unique use of dissolves layered on top of one another to create composite images, or the seemingly purposeful continuity errors that pop up in a handful of scenes. These small details have for decades fueled mysteries and conspiracy theories about the director’s true intent, as was captured beautifully in The Shining documentary Room 237 by Rodney Ascher. Watching that film, one begins to understand how a movie such as The Shining can draw forth deep, primordial responses from its audience, such as the all-consuming need to understand.
Do we even need to talk about performances? Jack Nicholson is amazing, focusing latent rage and the frustration of a recovering addict into a man who tends to put a smarmy face on all his daily interactions. Shelley Duvall is an unbearably anxious, nervous wreck, sadly reflecting what has often been reported as her actual state at the time, thanks to Kubrick’s tortuous direction and seeming fixation on her. And the film thrives in its mesmerizing bit parts, from suave Lloyd the bartender to the chilling Delbert Grady, who suggests that Torrance’s family needs to be “corrected” … or perhaps, “a bit more.” Each exchange of dialog tends to beg for further analysis.
It is telling that, unlike some of the other great horror films on this list, The Shining saw few attempts at what you’d call direct imitation in the years that followed. It was too much the product of an auteur mind to be so easily unwrapped and reverse engineered; nor was its initial reaction entirely positive, contrary to what you might now assume. It was and remains an exceptional film of great beauty, coldness, precision, calculation and yes, fright.
1981: An American Werewolf in London
Truly, 1981 is a horror bumper crop of epic proportions. The films here aren’t all what you’d call “cerebral” in nature, but the genre itself is as popular and prolific right now as it’s ever been. On the indie side of the spectrum, new low-budget auteurs like Sam Raimi are coming to the forefront, while at the multiplex and drive-ins, slasher films have their biggest year yet. Oh, and it’s the rare instance where we can claim a definitive “best year ever” for a specific sub-genre: 1981 is without a doubt the cream of the crop for werewolf movies. It wolfmen are your movie monster of choice, no other year comes close.
In terms of eventual impact on the genre, Raimi’s The Evil Dead lands at the top of the pack, and is also a strong contender to be considered the #1 horror film for 1981. On a shoestring budget, and working in isolated wilderness conditions that showed both his passion and naivete as a young filmmaker, Raimi produced one of the genre’s most singular crossovers between manic comedy and invasive horror. The Evil Dead is a strange series in that way—in the three original films, Raimi progresses steadily from genuinely disturbing horror to full-fledged comedy by the time we reach Army of Darkness, but the seeds of quip machine, “hail to the king” Ash Williams are there from the beginning, even if Ash starts out as a bit of a dweeb. Even more than the character, though, it’s the film’s irreverent tone and gory ultraviolence that peg it as one of the progenitors of the “video nasty” era of home video horror flicks. Its success led to much imitation in the nascent market for VHS horror and the subsequent rise of video rental stores, where titles such as The Evil Dead were perpetually hot commodities among a select clientele. The logical end result of this direction of expansion are the splatter films of Peter Jackson, such as Bad Taste and Dead Alive.
In 1981, though, it’s the slasher that is clearly in the middle of its golden era. This year is notable for the arrival of some of the first prominent slasher sequels, in the form of Halloween II and Friday the 13th Part 2, both of which would be commercially successful and establish the profitability of ad nauseum, lower-budget slasher sequels throughout the rest of the decade. Halloween II is a divisive film, with some fans claiming it’s on par with the original, while others find it cold and uninteresting, despite the more overt level of violence than John Carpenter’s original. Friday the 13th Part 2, on the other hand, is still fairly beloved by fans of the genre to this day for the fact that it introduces an adult Jason Voorhees as the killer, even if he hasn’t yet acquired his trademark hockey mask. If you’re asking us, though, the “single eye hole cut in a sack cloth” look is significantly creepier anyway. Beyond those two big franchises, though, there’s a wealth of classic slashers released this year, from Tobe Hooper’s beautifully shot The Funhouse to My Bloody Valentine, The Prowler and the best of the camp-based Friday imitators, The Burning. Just try not to be a little shocked by the brutality of the raft massacre sequence. Truly, 1981 was one of the best years for slashers in general.
There are plenty of other delights here as well, such as Isabelle Adjani’s incredibly disturbing subway meltdown in Possession, or the high water mark of the werewolf transformation sequences in The Howling. And don’t forget the exploding head in the opening of Scanners, or the underrated, eye-stabbingly great Dead & Buried. We could go on forever about this year.
1981 Honorable Mentions:
The Evil Dead
, The Howling, Possession, Scanners, Wolfen, The Burning, The Beyond, Dead & Buried, Halloween II, Friday the 13th: Part 2, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, Hell Night, The Funhouse, My Bloody Valentine, The Prowler
The Film: An American Werewolf in London
Director: John Landis
It’s not always quite clear, watching An American Werewolf in London, whether John Landis thought he was primarily directing a classically spooky monster movie or a pitch-black comedy—the truth, naturally, is somewhere in between, although the film has a fairly distinctive tonal feel to it. Long stretches veer quite confidently in the direction of bitter sardonicism, only to be interrupted by spikes of horror so intense and unexpected that they stop you breathlessly in your tracks. Eventually, you get the sense that this was the intention—Landis uses gallows humor to get us invested in the characters, but remembers to throw in something shocking every time we settle too far into our seats. He doesn’t want you getting too comfortable.
The film is essentially the story of David and Jack, two American backpackers who are hiking across the English moors, when they stumble into what is decidedly the wrong neighborhood for outsiders. Finding the locals inexplicably hostile, and hearing strange howling on the wind, the pair are turned out into the night, where they’re savagely attacked by a large, wolf-like creature. Jack is torn to pieces in the assault, leaving David as the heavily scarred sole survivor … or is he? Before long, David is being interrupted from his new romance with a pretty nurse by visions of Jack, his gruesomely mangled face flapping open as he calmly and cooly tells David that he’ll be transforming into a wolf himself at the next full moon. The only course of action, Jack assures him without much in the way of empathy, is to “take your own life.”
Such is the oddball tone of this classic werewolf story, a film whose sense of humor is so dark and so dry that it’s often unsettling in and of itself. Griffin Dunne steals the show as “undead” Jack, a persistent presence who we assume is there to comfort or advise his friend, but instead has no comfort at all to give—in fact, he hardly seems to care about the guy at all, which makes his “kill yourself!” advice that much less convincing. Death, it would seem, really changes a guy.
At the same time, though, An American Werewolf in London isn’t lacking for scares—it’s just that you rarely see them coming. The truly nightmarish dream sequences are the best example of these sudden spikes in adrenaline, as in the scene where David’s entire family are massacred in their homes by machine gun-wielding Nazi werewolf mutants, while he watches at knifepoint. Sounds ridiculous in writing, right? Well, it’s incredibly gruesome in practice. Landis even twists the knife a little further by using the “dream within a dream” reveal here, netting two effective jump scares for the price of one.
Rewatching the film today, what arguably stands out the most is the sublime quality of the practical effects, especially when it comes to the gore effects. This was the horror genre coming out party of legendary monster maestro Rick Baker, netting him the newly created Academy Award for Best Makeup—an award for which he would be nominated another 11 times in his career, including a further six wins. Suffice to say, every one of his contributions here is state of the art and raised the game for makeup and costuming effects, from the steady decay of Jack’s face to the blood and guts that result from David’s werewolf rampage.
And of course, we could hardly conclude this entry without discussing Baker’s masterpiece, which is American Werewolf’s iconic transformation sequence. This remains, bar none, the best werewolf transformation ever put on film—two and a half minutes of David undergoing what seems to be absolute agony, fully cognizant of his own body warping, shifting and splitting apart like a human cocoon. Like so much else in the film, the sequence begins with jarring suddenness—one second, David is reading a book, and the next he’s writhing on the ground and stripping off his clothes, cursing the heavens. It’s painful, protracted, and captures the full intensity inherent in the body horror aspect of involuntary transformation—even the act of individual hairs springing from David’s back seems to be tortuous. The sequence, largely thanks to Baker, set the bar for this genre at such a point where few werewolf films since have even managed to earn positive comparisons.
1982: The Thing
Like the last few years in the first half of this decade, 1982 is bolstered by the presence of a few unassailable classics at the top of the bill, with a lineup that is then filled in by kitschier slasher sequels and stranger fare, for a pretty strong lineup overall. The films here range from the genuinely disturbing, ‘ala the ghostly sexual assault present in The Entity, to shameless gimmickry, as seen in the 3D third installment in the Friday the 13th series, which might be the least subtle 3D horror film ever made. But hey, at least it gives us the source of Jason Voorhees’ hockey mask, which is worth something. Rarely has such an inessential (but charmingly dumb) horror film contributed such a recognizable element of pop culture as this.
The Thing, being the masterpiece it is, has a death grip on the #1 spot, but if any film could challenge for the throne, it would have been Tobe Hooper’s classic Poltergeist. Fast moving and charming from start to finish, it’s one of the genre’s most accessible and well-characterized paranormal stories, with a cast of characters who each get their individual moments to shine … with the exception of that older daughter, who just sort of walks out of the film halfway through. The presence of Spielberg in the producer’s chair—and occasionally the director’s chair, to listen to the way some people tell it—imbues the film with that particular brand of suburban whimsy that is the director’s trademark, very much in the mold of E.T., but Poltergeist is also a harrowing horror film whenever it makes the decision to turn up the intensity level. It’s hard to imagine Spielberg would have masterminded that horrific sequence where the researcher peels off his own face into the utility room sink, for instance—but for Hooper, the director of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it’s perfectly on brand. It’s a well-calculated balance between gallows humor, emotional sincerity and serious horror that sequels in the series found difficult to replicate without descending into absurdity.
1982 also gives us one of the genre’s most oft-cited anthology entries, in the form of Creepshow, a movie that has seen dozens of attempts at replicating (or just shamelessly ripping off) its overall dynamic. Certainly, there had been plenty of horror anthologies before Creepshow, but this particular film’s collaboration between director George A. Romero and writer Stephen King made for lightning in a bottle. It contains a slew of classic segments, all of which go out of their way to visually pay homage to the gaudy, schlocky EC Comics series such as Tales From the Crypt or Vault of Horror that so inspired both men in their youth. It’s hard to choose any favorite segment, although we’re partial to “Something to Tide You Over” for its rare villainous turn by the always wonderful Leslie Nielsen.
Beyond the classics, 1982 plays host to a bevy of slashers, from the perennially divisive Halloween III: Season of the Witch (which is more of a supernatural/sci-fi horror film), to the effective but underseen Alone in the Dark, to choice bits of schlock like The Slumber Party Massacre.
1982 Honorable Mentions:
Poltergeist, Creepshow, Tenebrae, White Dog, The Entity, Alone in the Dark, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Basket Case, Friday the 13th Part III, The Slumber Party Massacre
The Film: The Thing
As a 30-something horror geek who dove headfirst into the genre in college, there was never a time for me when cultural appraisal of John Carpenter’s The Thing was anything other than as a universally lauded masterpiece of the horror and science fiction genres. That’s the reality I’ve always existed in, which makes it all that much stranger to read about how much critics sincerely hated Carpenter’s film upon its release in 1982. They hated its unflinchingly gross gore and morphing effects. They hated its cold indifference toward humanity, and its distrust of authority. They hated the way its characters failed to band together in a cohesive or satisfying way to repel an alien invader. They hated it with such verve, in fact, that the magazine Cinefantastique ran a cover story on The Thing with the following caption: “Is this the most hated movie of all time?”
It’s incredible, then, to think of how utterly the film was reappraised over the course of the next three decades. How many classics in this genre really end up that way after being not just “overlooked” in their initial releases, but widely condemned as abominations? The consensus on The Thing reshaped itself with an alacrity not unlike its titular, shape-shifting monster.
One thing the critics certainly weren’t wrong about was the film’s emotional temperature—everything about The Thing is icy cold and remorseless. It is ponderous when it wants to be, but Carpenter’s slowly panning shots tend to hide nuggets of information meant to give audiences the tools they need to pick apart its central mystery. The question of any given moment—who is The Thing, and what is its aim?—can often be deduced by following Carpenter’s careful clues, although some meetings, such as the final one between MacReady and Childs, are purposefully left ambiguous to stir a never-ending debate. It’s the stuff that armchair YouTube film essays are made of.
From a purely technical standpoint, The Thing is clearly a triumph. Every shot conveys vital information. Its score, from Ennio Morricone, fuses the talents of the Italian master with Carpenter’s own ear for electronic-driven soundtracks, amplifying the film’s sense of apocalyptic detachment. Its visual FX, largely from Rob Bottin and with an assist from Stan Winston, are perhaps the greatest collection of horror film practical effects sequences ever assembled. Each transformation or assimilation sequence outdoes the last in pure, nightmare-inducing shock value, making the film’s antagonist into cinema’s most insidious alien presence. Say what you will for the Xenomorph in Alien, but at least that thing is brutally straightforward in its intentions to kill you. The Thing, on the other hand, operates with an alien intelligence that is utterly emotionless and unknowable. It’s never even completely clear if those who are The Thing know whether or not they’ve become The Thing—perhaps it simply sits in one’s system at times, idle, letting you live out your life until it’s time to emerge. You could be The Thing right now, in fact …
Ultimately, the 1980s proved to be a good decade for remakes of 1950s science fiction horror films, as The Thing, The Fly and The Blob all reappeared in forms that were either genuinely masterful or simply entertaining, but universally gore-centric. They make for the most fitting of 1980s horror triple features—but The Thing will always be the crown jewel.
Compared to the solid run we’ve been on since the mid-1970s, 1983 feels like more of a breather year. There are some fine films here, but fewer that you would label as indispensable classics of the genre—the lineup is a little lacking in wow factor, you could say. In general, it’s not quite as memorable as the years that surround it on either side, with the exception of Videodrome.
It’s a year of lesser Stephen King adaptations, for one, being home to both Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone (a big year for him, given that he also directed Videodrome) and John Carpenter’s Christine. Both of those films serviceably adapt their source material—The Dead Zone as a chilly psychological drama with horror elements, and Christine as a considerably more goofy story that is uncomplicated fun, which was likely a reaction to the negative critical response to Carpenter’s more ambitious The Thing a year earlier. The Dead Zone can boast some solid performances at least, as Christopher Walken took the fairly blank character of “Johnny Smith” and made him his own—it’s also fun to see Martin Sheen playing a psychotic commander in chief in Smith’s visions, like a worst case scenario for his West Wing character.
Elsewhere, you’ve got David Bowie playing a sexy but rapidly aging vampire in The Hunger, discovering the fine print in the difference between “eternal life” and “eternal youth,” and the up-and-down whiplash of Twilight Zone: The Movie, which starts off with a hell of an opening sequence but then bogs down in sentimentality, along with the infamy always attached to John Landis’ segment because of the on-set death of actor Vic Morrow in a stunt helicopter crash.
The slasher genre, of course, is still in full bloom as well, offering up minor classics like The House on Sorority Row or Sleepaway Camp. The latter remains a very fun watch in 2019, capturing the zeitgeist of ridiculously cruel teenage bullying and a “secret” killer whose identity should be more than obvious from the opening moments. It will, however, always stand out for some of its sillier kills (the bee’s nest, for one) and the truly eye-popping nature of its ending, which remains nearly as shocking now as it was in 1983. Sleepaway Camp, in fact, might as well be considered the gold standard for slashers with left field, “what the hell did I just see?” endings.
1983 Honorable Mentions:
The Dead Zone, The Hunger, Christine, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Sleepaway Camp, Angst, Psycho II, Cujo, The House on Sorority Row
The Film: Videodrome
Director: David Cronenberg
Those who know Videodrome only by reputation and the iconic stills they see online probably expect a film that is more or less plotless, simply a melange of disturbing, hallucinatory imagery. The reality is surprisingly the opposite, as the central plotline of the film is as much mystery as it is social satire; a compelling quest to determine the nature and source of the infamous “Videodrome” pirate broadcast, before the last act of the film descends completely into the surreal nightmare fuel with which the film is indelibly associated. As a director, David Cronenberg sometimes seems to see himself as beyond the constraints of such things as “plot,” but Videodrome actually manages to be both grounded and quite abstract at the same time.
This is a film with a beautifully nihilistic outlook on modern culture, which manages to make the very thought of consuming any kind of entertainment seem deeply unwholesome. One might think that its themes, rooted in the age of cathode ray tubes and powerful TV broadcast stations, might have lost potency in the online streaming era, but if anything they’re more relevant than ever. The medium of man’s consumption of media doesn’t matter one bit—there’s nothing being said about the nature of reality and TV in Videodrome that doesn’t apply toward modern YouTube personalities or Twitch streamers. Like Max Renn, we still exist in a world where so many of us are always chasing the dragon, on a never-ending quest for the next high. Only now, we don’t have to fiddle with the rabbit ears of a junky old TV set—we simply request that the web supply us with stimulation, and it does, immediately. If the 1980s were already an “overstimulated time,” in the words of Debbie Harry, then imagine how much worse our “sexual malaise” must be now, with instant gratification ever at our fingertips. More frightening still, our media landscape is now so vast and impossible for a single consciousness to process that each individual voice needs to be that much louder, to be heard.
As Renn, James Woods exudes an aura of sleaze and disgust—he is a willing pawn for forces that he instantly accepts as greater than himself, overcome by a society where enough is never enough. The visions he experiences as the Videodrome broadcast breaks down the barriers of his consciousness seem to draw on the biomechanical nightmares of H.R. Giger, as twisted fusions of man and machine presage future body horror classics like Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It’s never clear what is hallucination and what is reality, but it’s one of those cases where trying to determine objective truth would be a pointless effort. As Videodrome argues, perception is itself reality, anyway.
To close with a summation from Paste’s own Dom Sinacola, from our list of the 100 best horror films of all time:
In Videodrome, maybe more saliently than in any of his other films, Cronenberg squeezes the ordeals of the slumbering mind like toothpaste from the tube into the disgusting light of day, unable to push them back in. Long live the new flesh—because the old can no longer hold us together.
1984: A Nightmare on Elm Street
1984 is an interesting year for American horror cinema—there’s no shortage of good films here, but the volume is lower than in the rest of the decade. Whereas 1983 had more volume but fewer classics, 1984 has more classic films, but a roster that is a bit less deep.
Of course, a lot of that is dependent upon what kinds of films you want to allow into the honorable mentions list. Ghostbusters, despite having “ghost” right there in the title, is one of the decade’s greatest pure comedies, but I’m sorry—I can’t accept seeing that on a list of horror movies. James Cameron’s The Terminator, on the other hand, is a lot easier to make a case for. We wouldn’t begrudge someone naming The Terminator as the best horror film of the year—unlike the array of sequels that followed, the original film is horror adjacent at the very least, largely because it views its mechanical monster through the lense of Sarah Connor’s almost total helplessness. Sarah and Kyle Reese don’t have the advantages of weaponry and technology possessed by human fighters in later installments of the series—they’re going up against a nigh-indestructible robot with entirely improvised tactics, and that is pretty frightening at times. Although the effects on The Terminator haven’t aged nearly as well as those in T2: Judgment Day, they still maintain an air of gritty faux realism.
Other notables for 1984 include the fantastical, fairy tale-inspired werewolf yarn The Company of Wolves, which features some of the strangest werewolf transformations the genre has ever seen, and the oddball ’80s pop culture satire Night of the Comet, which feels like the meeting point between Ferris Bueller-style truancy and Romero’s nihilism in Day of the Dead. Joe Dante also gifts the world with Gremlins, one of the few horror movies you can get away with throwing into a “Christmas” viewing playlist.
As for the slasher genre, this is another high-water mark, not necessarily in the number of releases but in terms of their impact on the genre. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street injects some badly needed new ideas into the system, while Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter explores the possibility of killing off a franchise cash cow, with the first “real” death of Jason Voorhees. Of course, the series would partially walk that decision back only a year later in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, and then all the way back in 1986’s Jason Lives, but The Final Chapter remained an important precedent for franchises dependent on the kayfabe vitality of their most important central characters. It’s also rather amusing to think, decades later, that “The Final Chapter” constitutes entry number four in a series that now has 12 official outings.
1984 Honorable Mentions:
The Terminator, The Company of Wolves, Gremlins, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Night of the Comet, The Toxic Avenger, Children of the Corn, C.H.U.D.
The Film: A Nightmare on Elm Street
Director: Wes Craven
People who have never actually watched an entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street series tend to incorrectly assume that the thing meant to be most frightening about Freddy Krueger is the character’s scarred appearance, or the tool with which he so delights in murdering teenagers—the iconic, razor-fingered glove. This is a gross oversimplification, the same as stating that Michael Myers is frightening because he wears a mask, but nonetheless a common hurdle to clear in discussion of slasher movies in polite society. Suffice to say, it’s not about the face, or the glove—it’s about the invasive way Freddy penetrates what is supposed to be a personal inner sanctum, overpowering you in the place where you’re meant to be most empowered. He finds you where you’re strongest, just to rub his superiority in your face before killing you.
By this point in 1984, the slasher genre had become old hat for audiences, and the relentless sequelization of series such as Friday the 13th was already the persistent butt of jokes—if only they knew how much further it would still go, right? New blood was desperately needed, and Wes Craven was ready to answer the call. As he would so many other times—in 1994’s New Nightmare, and again in 1996’s Scream, particularly—Craven demonstrated his genius by having the insight to be able to take stock of the direction an entire genre was headed, in order to take a calculated step down a new avenue of exploration. That was Craven’s gift in his prime, the ability to read the currents of the industry and see a way to disrupt the staid flow of recycled ideas.
Freddy Krueger, then, was ultimately exactly what the slasher genre needed in this moment—a new legend that cemented the fact that the most effective way to create a new slasher villain was to give him an effective anchor for his mythos. For Krueger, it’s the grisly details of how he came to be a supernaturally empowered bogeyman—lynched by a group of vigilante parents of the children he murdered, and burned to death, only to swear revenge from beyond the grave. That backstory helps give motivation to both Freddy (as well as a degree of earned vengeance) and Nancy Thompson’s guilty parents, although mostly this manifests in Ronee Blakely’s clumsily handled alcoholism subplot. Even in a masterpiece like A Nightmare on Elm Street, we should acknowledge the clunky stuff.
The nature of Freddy’s attack vector, though, through the dreams of his victims, constituted a gift from Craven to all the visual and FX artists who would work on the Nightmare on Elm Street series for the next few decades. It was a blank creative check; an acknowledgement that they were free to innovate and design the wildest set pieces and strangest deaths imaginable, being freed entirely from the necessity of operating within the boundaries of reality. Here was a new set of rules to play by, in which you could strangle a kid with a living bedsheet, or have them dragged onto the ceiling by an invisible force, or have them chewed up and spit out as a geyser of blood by their own bed. In the later, zanier entries of the series, these concepts would be pushed to their breaking points and beyond, resulting in such deaths as a girl being turned into a cockroach and then ripped apart in an insect trap, or a boy being inserted into a videogame played by Freddy. But here, in the original, they’re more disturbing than they are funny—especially the death of poor Tina, disemboweled on the ceiling while her scruffy boyfriend looks on.
Freddy Krueger, as a slasher villain, would likewise grow and change in the years to come. His dark humor is partially present here in the original go-round, but more than in any of the sequels that would follow, Craven was focusing on the scarier aspects of the character, rather than the jokester that began to emerge in Dream Warriors and was carried on into absurdity by films such as The Dream Child and Final Nightmare. Craven’s film remains the simplest, purest, scariest execution of the character, establishing an icon that would make Robert Englund beloved to horror fans to this very day.
1985: The Return of the Living Dead
What a bumper crop of horror films, zombie cinema in particular, 1985 affords to us. We said that 1981 was indisputably the best year in the history of the horror genre for werewolf movies, and this year their ghoulish siblings, the zombies, take precedence. No other single year can match this one for zombie classics, made all the more memorable for how each of those classics handle the walking dead in significantly different ways.
At the top of the heap is George Romero’s Day of the Dead, the third entry in the director’s original “of the dead” series, and the most likely entry of the series to be badly underrated by the average viewer. Indeed, the more discerning horror geek might even consider Day of the Dead to be Romero’s true magnum opus, the most bleakly individualistic of all his zombie films, and the entry with the most satisfying expansion of the core mythos of what it means to be a ghoul. The action this time is taking place in a military research bunker in the months after the fall of society, as a team of doctors works furiously to search for survivors and conduct research on the nature of the zombie plague. It’s the first time in the series that we really get to see the zombies approached in a clinical, scientific manner, which yields some fascinating results: Select ghouls, like this film’s iconic “Bub,” do seem to retain some knowledge and memory of their past lives as living humans, and it may even be possible to train them not to attack. Sadly, these discoveries are lost on the megalomaniacal military leader of the bunker, Capt. Rhodes, played with overinflated glee by actor Joseph Pilato, and the brewing conflict between researchers and soldiers gradually leads to the explosive breakdown we all knew was inevitable—complete with plenty of incredible zombie carnage.
Next in the zombie pecking order (although you could probably make cases for all these films as #1) would probably be Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, the film that introduced most horror fans to the joys of soon-to-be genre staple Jeffrey Combs. Here, he’s playing Dr. Herbert West, loosely adapted from the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name, but bearing more of the personality of Peter Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein from the Hammer Horror revival years of the 1950s-1970s. Like Cushing’s take on the doctor, West is an imperious dick to everyone around him, but he backs up his god complex with utter brilliance—he earns the right to look down on everyone, because he’s just that much smarter than them. Of course, his “re-agent” serum could still use a little tinkering … it would be nice if it revived people as cogent conversationalists rather than screaming, superpowered, homicidal zombies. But you can’t have everything, right? With a twisted sense of humor and one of horror’s best lead performances from Combs, Re-Animator is always a joy to revisit.
The rest of the 1985 roster remains plenty deep. Lamberto Bava’s Demons is another great zombie movie in everything but name—the creatures may be apparently “demons,” but the structure of the film is much like an urbanized Night of the Living Dead. Beyond the plethora of zombie fare, though, you’ve got high school spaz vs. charming vampire next door in Fright Night, the hilarious consumerist satire of The Stuff, the constantly naked space vampire in Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, several above average Stephen King adaptations (Cat’s Eye, Silver Bullet) and the uniquely homoerotic Nightmare on Elm Street 2, to boot. Certainly, this year is among the best the 1980s has to offer.
1985 Honorable Mentions:
Day of the Dead, Re-Animator, Demons, Fright Night, The Stuff, Phenomena, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, Cat’s Eye, Lifeforce, Silver Bullet
The Film: The Return of the Living Dead
Director: Dan O’Bannon
The choice of The Return of the Living Dead as the “best” horror film of 1985 is not an easy one to make. There’s no doubting that as far as this year’s zombie gems go, Day of the Dead has far more to say about the human condition. At the same time, Re-Animator has the far more compelling central character in Herbert West, and nobody else can touch Jeffrey Combs’ performance in that movie. But damn it, ROTLD makes up for its lack of gravitas or well-developed characters by just being delightfully, deliriously fun. It’s one of the most relentlessly entertaining films in the history of the genre, capturing 1985 as a perfect pop cultural time capsule that keeps the feeling of the era fresh, like it’s been stored away for decades in an untouched vault—or a cannister full of half-melted zombie. It’s indicative of everything horror fans love about this particular decade, and the whole manages to be quite a lot more than the sum of its parts. It’s the quintessential ’80s zombie movie.
The film has its roots in the split between zombie godfather George A. Romero and the less heralded John Russo, co-writer of Night of the Living Dead. After parting ways following the first film, Russo retained the rights to the phrase “Living Dead,” whereas Romero’s films followed the “of the dead” nomenclature. Thus, ROTLD functions as a long-delayed follow-up in Russo’s mind to the original Night of the Living Dead, name-dropping the 1968 film as if ROTLD takes place in a universe where those events secretly happened and were then turned into a popular horror film. In terms of tone, though, ROTLD diverges wildly from the nihilism and cultural criticism of Romero’s films, especially this year’s dour Day of the Dead. Here we have Dan O’Bannon’s baby—a hilarious, satirical send-up of 1980s youth culture, torn apart by some of cinema’s funniest and fiercest ghouls.
The characters of ROTLD are the perfect pastiche of 1980s punk rock teen tropes, alternatingly bedecked in leather, piercings, mohawks or looking like wannabe versions of The Talking Heads’ David Byrne. Teenage lead Freddy is played by the wavy-haired Thom Matthews, who would secure a place in horror immortality via the combination of this film and next year’s excellent Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. But in reality, despite the heavy teenage focus—and the accompanying soundtrack of emerging punk and hard rock music—it’s the older characters who shine. Clu Gulager and James Karen (RIP, 2018) are hilarious as Burt and Frank, two harried warehouse operators who try to sweep an emerging zombie breakout under the rug, and only make things far worse in the process. Karen in particular engages in a series of constantly redoubling meltdowns, taking histrionic horror performances to a new level.
The zombies of ROTLD, meanwhile, have also evolved in important ways. Here, for the first time, they’re specifically craving human brains rather than general flesh, and are able to sprint (and speak!) rather than simply shamble to and fro. Combined with the fact that they’re no longer able to be destroyed by headshots or “destroying the brain,” remaining active even when chopped to pieces, it makes these perhaps the most purely indestructible zombies that the genre had ever seen. Even burning them to ashes leads to some truly messed-up, unintended consequences. It was a portrayal of the living dead that nicely refreshed the genre in the years to follow, and eventually so colored the pop cultural presentation of zombies that the mental image of zombies lusting for “braiiiinnnnnssss” wrongly became a trope associated with all zombie movies, including Romero’s sequels to Night of the Living Dead. So to did the film create the distinction between “fast zombies” and “slow zombies” as a way of categorizing the genre, sorting them into camps that include Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later on one side, and Shaun of the Dead on the other.
In the end, Return of the Living Dead simply remains a joy to watch, one of the A+ picks you can choose to throw on your flat screen TV during an adult Halloween party. Its effects are suitably gross, its encapsulation of the decade and nostalgia factor are through the roof, and it’s as funny today as it ever was. If you’re a zombie fan who somehow hasn’t seen this movie, then you’re doing yourself a grave disservice.
1986: The Fly
Another strong year overall, 1986 continues the mostly “fun”-focused tone of 1980s horror, while also introducing an underbelly of darker psychological horror in the form of several particularly uncompromising serial killer movies. These two notable films, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Manhunter, certainly raised some eyebrows at the time of their release, and provided the building blocks that would eventually get the genre to crossover smash hits like The Silence of the Lambs and Seven—and not just because Manhunter is the first on-screen appearance of the Hannibal Lecter character, either.
Of the two, it’s really Henry that is hardest to forget or wash away, after watching. This is a dirty, grimy, icky film, notable for the way it sets its story through the point of view of its titular killer, but never even attempts to somehow get the audience on his side. Henry is a monster; one who doesn’t quite seem to understand what drives him, but also makes no effort to fight it. He simply wakes up one morning, dispassionately feeling like maybe he should kill someone, and then goes out and does it. Michael Rooker is superb as the damaged and totally empty Henry, staring into the mirror with nothing at all behind his eyes, able to avoid asking himself any difficult questions. This film’s violence, likewise, is totally unlike the gleeful carnage of the still popular slasher genre—the audience is meant to react to it with disgust and revulsion rather than cheers or titillation, especially in infamous sequences like Henry and Otis’ “home movie.” It was a significantly different approach to horror, in a time when most cinematic serial killers were wearing a mask or spouting off cheesy one-liners as they hacked up teens.
The biggest contender for an alternate #1 film this year is of course James Cameron’s Aliens, one of the genre’s most pitch-perfect sequels, even though it utterly transforms the genre and tone of Ridley Scott’s claustrophobic original. Gone is the slow, atmospheric game of cat and mouse, the fear of a single xenomorph lurking among the visually similar tubing and bulkheads. Cameron correctly concluded in his assessment of the situation that in order to top Alien, he had to raise the stakes (and threat level) with a bevy of the creatures, but that in doing so, the fear generated by any single xenomorph would be sacrificed—also known in the world of tropes as the “inverse ninja law.” Wisely, then, he instead switches gears from outright horror to focus on explosive action and characterization, setting up the returning Ripley alongside a cast of endearing colonial marines, who we sadly have to watch be picked off one by one. Aliens, like Cameron’s own Terminator 2, completes Ripley’s path from fearful starship crewwoman on the run, to hardened badass—the same sort of transformation experienced by Sarah Connor in between the first two films of that series. Few films in cinema crystalize that sort of character growth more epically than Ripley striding out in the power loader: “Get away from her, you bitch!”
There’s still a bevy more honorable mentions of merit, especially in the slasher genre, which is increasingly turning toward gimmickry here in an effort to remain fresh, such as in April Fool’s Day or the amusing killer robots of Chopping Mall. Special credit goes to Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, which has got to be the best SIXTH installment of any slasher franchise, and a fan favorite to those who love Jason Voorhees, who returns here as a superpowered, undead engine of destruction for the first time. The cracks are beginning to show in the foundation of the slasher genre, but it still has a few more decent years left in it.
1986 Honorable Mentions:
Aliens, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, Manhunter, From Beyond, Night of the Creeps, The Hitcher, House, Chopping Mall, April Fool’s Day, Poltergeist II: The Other Side
The Film: The Fly
Director: David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg isn’t exactly a director known for shying away from disgusting or otherwise fucked-up imagery, but his remake of The Fly is truly gross, even by his standards. Like its contemporaries in 1950s horror that received bigger budget 1980s remakes (The Thing, The Blob), the story of 1958’s The Fly has had its camp element stripped away, replaced with pitch-black gallows humor and FX-driven, gross-out bombast. Here, in the golden age of practical effects, we’ve reached an era where films like The Fly seem to be daring audiences to make it through a screening without losing their lunch—a turn of events that unsurprisingly drew quite a lot of criticism from social conservatives, who wondered if there was any depiction of violence the genre wouldn’t dare to touch.
It’s not exactly a typical film from Cronenberg, whose personal style in the earlier portions of his career usually trended toward somewhat slower, more brooding and psychological stories. Entries like Shivers, The Brood and Scanners all qualify on the body horror front, and they’re all known for some of their gory or otherwise disturbing visuals, but The Fly’s “mondo” elements are on an entirely different level. There’s not much in the way of subtlety here, and perhaps that’s why The Fly ultimately ended up as the director’s largest success at the box office—it is purely entertaining and easily accessible, provided you can stand up to all the bloodletting.
Much of the credit for The Fly’s charms belong to star Jeff Goldblum, who exudes confidence as egotistical scientist Seth Brundle, who somehow manages to afford an entire warehouse laboratory on the non-salary of a freelance theoretical physicist. Spacious digs aside, Brundle’s masterwork is a teleporter pod that performs admirably at zapping inanimate objects from place to place, but has a tendency to turn living creatures inside out—this is exactly as unpleasant to witness as you might expect. Eventually, Brundle manages to perfect the device, but of course there’s a fly in the ointment, so to speak. With his DNA crossed with that of a fly, Brundle first experiences an upswell of vitality and power … and then descends into madness as his body melts away, replaced by that of a massive fly. Goldblum deftly conveys the sardonic streak of a man who knows his time is limited, even as he develops new physical tics that indicate the increasing dominance of the primordial insect consciousness in his mind.
The Fly isn’t quite the gory screwball comedy you see in say, Peter Jackson’s Braindead, but it’s as close a facsimile as an average theater-goer is likely to come across. Indeed, the film often is quite funny, in a demented sort of way, whether it’s the empowered Brundle gruesomely breaking a biker’s wrist in a seedy arm-wrestling competition, or the “Brundlefly” creature vomiting digestive acid onto the meddling newspaper editor investigating his transformation. It wields its ultraviolence in a way that pushes it beyond the disturbing and often intentionally into the realm of absurdity. At the same time, it also retains significant pathos, especially in the pathetic end of the Brundlefly’s life. The Fly deftly balances a few of these disparate tonal elements, making it one of the decade’s most singular sci-fi/horror features.
1987: Evil Dead 2
It’s funny how the 1980s have several specific years that are banner frames for a particular type of movie monster. 1981 had werewolves. 1985 was the best year ever for zombie cinema. And 1987 is a damn good year for vampire flicks, although perhaps not quite as indisputable for the “best ever” title. Still: Near Dark, The Lost Boys and The Monster Squad in a single year makes for three very different, very entertaining takes on the vampire mythos—from reality grounded fatalism, to teenage rebellion, to the classical arch-fiend found in the underrated Dracula portrayal in The Monster Squad in particular. Perhaps this simply speaks to both the volume of horror cinema in the 1980s, and the strength of this year’s lineup, which is another very strong one.
One of the A-tier selections in the estimation of most horror fans would certainly be Hellraiser, the only entry in this deplorably strung-out franchise to actually be directed by Clive Barker, the creator of its characters. The resulting film is tidy in its construction but icky in its overtones and subtext—vintage Barker, in other words. It revels in his typical obsession with dualities and the blurred lines between them, whether it’s pleasure vs. pain or freedom vs. imprisonment. It brings us one of the genre’s best and most dynamic final girls in the form of Kirsty Cotton, although we all know it’s the Cenobites that people remember, and their leader Pinhead in particular. These designs, from Pinhead’s titular, dotted dome, to the teeth-clattering Chatterer, became immediate horror icons the moment they first strolled onto the screen. None of the sequels, save for Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, have ever managed to do the Cenobites justice again.
A very honorable mention as well to A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, which is almost unanimously considered the finest of the Nightmare sequels by fans, with some even ranking it above the 1984 original. Unlike the unusual, homoerotic question posed by first sequel Freddy’s Revenge, Dream Warriors benefits greatly from a returning Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson, now old enough to play a researcher attempting to help a hospital full of troubled teens battle Freddy on his own territory. It’s the perfect example of a horror sequel that expands on the imagination and premise of the original, as new layers of dream mythology give the kids new methods to combat Krueger, while simultaneously imbuing Freddy with that many more tools to pull off creative kills. This is likewise the zenith of the character in terms of the perfect balance between threatening and darkly funny—he’s still enough of a threat to be occasionally frightening, but he has no shortage of memorable zingers. From this point on in the Nightmare series, the threat of Freddy is greatly de-emphasized, until Craven returns in New Nightmare.
Other notables for 1987 include Arnold Schwarzennegar going one-on-one with an alien big game hunter in Predator, Dario Argento stylishly torturing a wide-eyed Cristina Marsillach in Opera, one of his finest overall giallo films, and John Carpenter’s perennially underlooked but cult-popular Prince of Darkness, reuniting the director with Halloween’s Donald Pleasance once more. In a low key way, this is a strong contender for the best horror crop of the decade.
1987 Honorable Mentions:
Hellraiser, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Opera, Predator, Near Dark, The Lost Boys, The Monster Squad, Angel Heart, Prince of Darkness, Stagefright, aka Aquarius, Creep Show 2, Blood Diner
The Film: Evil Dead 2
On first inspection, it’s actually rather hard to tell how Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 is meant to relate to the film that preceded it. Is it a loose remake of the same story, or a direct follow-up? The truth is somewhere in between—the opening moments of the film are meant to reconstruct a hurried recap of what happened in Evil Dead, but Raimi took the opportunity to heavily revise and truncate the plot of the first film in the process, simplifying the slate of characters to just Ashley “Ash” Williams and his girlfriend Linda, who becomes possessed by a “Kandarian demon” and runs amok in a cabin in the woods. Within 10 minutes or so, though, we’ve essentially reached the end of Evil Dead—Ash is still in the woods, his girlfriend is (un)dead, and he’s under attack by invisible demonic forces. Or in other words, the stage is primed for hilarity.
That’s the aspect that truly separates Evil Dead 2 from its forebear—where the first film is a legitimate horror/gore showcase that was shocking in its brutality to 1981 audiences, the sequel is seemingly coming from a very different corner of the director’s mind. Although there’s still plenty of gore and violence in Evil Dead 2, the bloodletting compels a tone of slapstick humor, rather than outright horror—an admission on Raimi’s part, perhaps, of how hardened genre audiences had become since the earlier days of the slasher boom. It’s a film that took the temperature of the genre and then adjusted itself to fit the tone of the day, becoming one of the all-time horror comedies in the process.
Practically all that is great about Evil Dead 2 flows from the synergy between star Bruce Campbell and Raimi’s frenetic direction. As Ash, Campbell has evolved significantly from his more low-key depiction in Evil Dead, becoming a full-on force of nature and larger than life personality. On one hand he’s a potent satire of the exceptional American alpha male/action hero, combining stunning good looks with a smart-alecky attitude and never-ending supply of quippy one-liners. At the same time, though, Ash is a fool, and the butt of all the film’s jokes—a rubber-faced buffoon who is endearing in his temperamental outbursts, bad decision-making, unflappable humor and everyman lack of understanding. He’s not the kind of character who thinks up brilliant stratagems to work his way out of a problem; he’s more likely to throw dirt in your eyes and then kick you when you’re down, congratulating himself as he does it. And somehow, this only makes us like him more. It’s one of the genre’s greatest one-man-show performances, at least for the film’s first half.
Raimi, meanwhile, is working with a significantly bigger budget here than in the original Evil Dead, and he pours all of it into maximizing what can be done with the film’s classic “cabin in the woods” setting. The use of puppets and animatronics is outstanding, particularly in sequences such as Ash’s mental breakdown, where he envisions every object in the room mocking him with laughter—books, lamps, mounted deer heads, the works. The depth of detail in this sequence in terms of the number of moving pieces, combined with Raimi’s active camera and choice of select Dutch angles, should be shown to film 101 students as shorthand for exactly how you evoke a character’s descent into madness. Few films in the genre have ever done it better.
Ultimately, Evil Dead 2 is one of those sequels that thrives on a philosophy of “more” and “bigger.” It’s the more bombastic, funnier, far more polished film than its predecessor, with a legendary performance from Bruce Campbell, although some understandably prefer the original for being more purely frightening. Nevertheless, with the right audience, Evil Dead 2 is close to the most fun you can have in a theater.
1988: The Vanishing
1988 is a year with an extremely wide variety of solid horror fare, but perhaps fewer unquestionably great films. The Vanishing anchors our #1 pick here and benefits from the fact that it is totally unlike the rest of the field, much of which is relying on declining slasher franchises and their goofy progeny. Like the rest of the decade, the films here are very uniformly “fun,” but they’re not often all that profound.
One film that stands out in a positive way for this year is Tim Burton’s light-hearted but simultaneously macabre Beetlejuice, which managed to present a wholly unique spin on the bureaucratic afterlife unlike anything audiences had seen before. Perfectly cast from top to bottom, whether it’s a particularly dorky Alec Baldwin, the wide-eyed, “strange and unusual” Winona Ryder or a delightfully deluded Catherine O’Hara, the film thrives on its performances and a memorable, bouncy score from Danny Elfman. But really, when all is said and done, it’s Michael Keaton’s movie. His “ghost with the most” is one of the single best, most deranged performances of the 1980s, regardless of genre. He commits himself with total, reckless abandon to selling the sleazy weirdness of Betelgeuse, and in doing so he creates one of the era’s most instantly iconic and quotable characters. It’s one of those cases where it’s hard to even imagine someone else attempting to play the role.
Also pertinent to the 1988 discussion is John Carpenter’s once cult, now beloved They Live, which one might make an argument is much more of a science fiction social satire than it is a true “horror” film, per se—but given the Carpenter connection, it becomes easier to include. Certainly, the idea of a society with alien overlords living among us is one that can work in a horror setting, but few horror films include a hilariously over-the-top, six-minute fight scene between two of the protagonists over whether one of them will put on a pair of sunglasses. Like Carpenter’s own Big Trouble in Little China, the jokes here are often poking fun at the comical excess of the era.
Outside these top few contenders, the rest of the year is dominated by films that feel very “1980s” indeed, whether that’s slasher sequels with diminishing returns, such as A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 or Phantasm 2—although we’ll put in a good word for Halloween 4 as still underrated by many fans to this day—or more unique, low-budget goofball fare, such as Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage or the Chiodo’s Killer Klowns From Outer Space. These flicks tended to cultivate a certain air of seediness that made them perennial rerun material in the early era of premium movie TV networks, and this, along with the boom in home video rentals, is what accounts for the cult status of so many similar films in this decade. As the decade draws to a close, we’ll see the slasher genre finally running out of steam in terms of the prominence of its releases, as the horror genre begins to experience a bit of a contraction.
1988 Honorable Mentions:
They Live, Beetlejuice, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Child’s Play, Night of the Demons, Brain Damage, Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Blob, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
The Film: The Vanishing
Director: George Sluizier
The Vanishing is a horror film about the deep, existential pain of uncertainty. It’s not the fact that he lost his girlfriend that tears at Rex, eroding his sanity and undermining any of the new relationships he attempts to build—it’s the not knowing what happened to her that is so impossible to live with. Did Saskia, his young, pretty girlfriend, simply decide to walk out on him that fateful day, in the middle of a cross-country road trip? Or was she somehow abducted from the highway rest stop where he saw her last, in full view of dozens of people? Who could have committed such a crime, and what hope is there of ever learning the truth, when years have passed since the day she disappeared? What is the point of continuing to search—and can you ever bring yourself to stop searching, even when you know you should, for your own good?
This Dutch thriller/psychological horror film provides a welcome change of pace from many of the American horror films we’ve been featuring throughout the 1980s in this project; a far more sober and composed rumination on grief, desperation and the all-consuming need to understand. Following the disappearance of his girlfriend, the world mourns with Rex … for a little while. Eventually, however, humanity’s lack of empathy rears its head—the people in Rex’s life expect him to “get over” what presumably happened to Saskia, but that’s something he simply can’t do. The lack of answers tear into his mental state to such an extreme that he’d gladly die in order to simply understand two things: How, and why?
The Vanishing is a powerfully unorthodox film, with an odd structure that runs counter to what audiences had been brought up to expect in serial killer/crime stories. For one, we are given the identity of the killer fairly early in the proceedings, and are then invited to voyeuristically see the world through his eyes a bit—not as he kills, but as he lives his otherwise normal life. The man has a family, as it turns out. He’s a beloved father figure, and a respected member of the community. He’s also a total psychopath, preparing his murders with air-tight professional competency and very much enjoying himself as he plays with Rex’s shattered nerves. Multiple times, he invites the grieving man to meet him for coffee, but then simply watches from across the street as Rex sits there pathetically, praying for answers. We can feel the way this likewise empowers the killer, to know he holds the secrets of Saskia’s end in his hands. It’s the ultimate power trip.
And of course, it’s his desperate need for that information that eventually leads Rex to his downfall. Ultimately, that’s the film’s most nihilistic thought, in a story full of them—the people who don’t need anything from this world are ultimately the ones who end up in control of it. Those who have a compulsion to seek justice or truth are punished, while those who exist outside of humanity ironically rise to positions of power within the human system. The Vanishing is a devastating story that may make you question the arbitrary cruelness of an uncaring universe wherein “karma” does not exist.
1989: Santa Sangre
Finally, the gravy train that has seen horror barreling through the entire decade with an incredible amount of momentum begins to lose a bit of steam. This is still a fine year for the genre overall, but some of the cracks in the foundation are beginning to show. There are more misfires here, and a perception that the public is tiring of endless horror sequels—an impression made all the stronger by the fact that several of the most prominent franchises go down a noticeable level of quality in this frame. In particular, the slasher genre is weakening considerably, with Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan ending the “golden eras” of each series. The slasher genre is increasingly moving into the cheapo world of direct-to-video, with franchises like this year’s Puppet Master leading the way. It’s clear that the peaks of the genre are well in the rear-view mirror.
The runners up this year aren’t quite as strong a crop as the ones in the rest of the decade, but there are still some fun films. Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs, for instance, is as charming to watch now as it was in 1989, recalling an earlier era of carefree Tom Hanks comedy performances, when the actor was willing to look considerably more silly. It’s a delightfully macabre (and quite funny) suburban story of a shut-in man who slowly comes to suspect that his next-door neighbors are cannibalistic murderers. Dante seems entirely unconcerned about how cartoonish the story and performances come off, which serves to enhance its enduring charm, as highlighted when he quickly and repeatedly zooms in and out on the face of a screaming Hanks, as a child operating a camera might. It’s a carefree approach toward a story that could have been told with deadly seriousness, but is instead expertly mined for laughs.
Also notable is Brian Yuzna’s Society, a deeply gross and ultimately quite influential little body horror film, which depicts with hallucinatory vagueness a cabal of Hollywood socialites who morph grotesquely in order to literally feed on and absorb the less fortunate. With a visual identity that is part H.R. Giger, part Salvador Dali and part Videodrome, clips from Society presented out of context represent some of the era’s greatest “WTF” material. In general, this is a notable year for Cronenberg-esque body horror, considering the presence of Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man, in which a hapless businessman is slowly transformed into a twisted hybrid of man and machine, against his will.
1989 Honorable Mentions:
The ‘Burbs, Society, The Abyss, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, The Woman in Black, Pet Sematary, Intruder, Parents, Bride of Re-Animator, Puppet Master, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, The Dead Next Door
The Film: Santa Sangre
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Has the filmography of any one director ever been more likely to be presented at midnight than that of Alejandro Jodorowsky? Jim Sharman, perhaps, by virtue of having created The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but it might be better to say that no director’s oeuvre has ever been more of a natural fit for midnight screenings than the boundless weirdness of Jodorowsky, the quintessential cinematic French surrealist. The fruits of his career feel like the result of a drive to take audiences where no one else would dare lead them, and the journey is rarely one that you could ever forget.
Most of Jodorowsky’s films, such as El Topo or The Holy Mountain, have some element of horror to them simply in how disorienting they are to watch, but Santa Sangre is on another level when it comes to imagery that is meant to shock and repulse the viewer. This is a true “horror” film, less in the sense that its goal is to actively frighten its audience, and more that it aims to get under their skin in the most unnerving way possible. It casts a mesmerizing, psycho-sexual spell; a phantasmagorical nightmare from which there is no waking.
Santa Sangre, loosely, is the story of Fenix (played by Jodorowsky’s own son, Axel), a circus performer with a childhood steeped in surrealism and nightmare fuel. His father is a drunken, philandering knife-thrower and the owner of their traveling show, while his mother is an aerialist whose true passion is as the religious figurehead of a Catholic cult that worships a patron saint who died after her arms were cut off. As fate would have it, Fenix’s mother also ends up having her arms cut off, but that’s only our jumping off point. The true horrors of Santa Sangre are when she reappears, and demands her son fill in for her missing faculties, becoming her dedicated arms and hands. Actress Blanca Guerra has a piercing intensity as the mother that is difficult to shake—her force of will seems impossible to resist, even as she steals her son’s agency and forces him to commit terrible crimes in her stead.
And be assured, this film is not wanting for disturbing imagery. There are sights in Santa Sangre that will make even seasoned horror geeks pause, like that of a dying baby elephant with blood pouring from its trunk. Or a woman raped by her husband while under a hypnotic spell. Or an acid attack on a man’s exposed genitalia. Or chickens pecking at a severed human arm. Or a flock of scavenging street urchins descending upon the corpse of the aforementioned elephant to tear it apart for sustenance. Even though it’s not traditional horror—and there are some quite graphic knifings as well, that would make Mario Bava proud—it can often be hard to watch.
At the same time, however, Santa Sangre is a shockingly beautiful film, full of painterly shots and sublime composition, and some unique angles, as in the opening when we get the literal birds-eye view of a hawk flying over the city. It’s a film that proudly wears its inspirations on its sleeve, from Freaks and The Hands of Orlac to The Invisible Man, which is referenced in depth. Every frame is indeed a painting, making it a film to be seen on as big a screen as possible—probably at midnight. This is Alejandro Jodorowsky, after all.